We all know that the NFL, for the better part of the past couple of decades, has been a quarterback's league. Aside from some extreme outliers — Trent Dilfer in 2000 for the Baltimore Ravens being the patron saint of outliers — the regular season has been a weeding-out process for most of the bottom 20 signal callers, and the playoffs have been a game of Survivor in which the winning team is the one with the best (or close to the best) QB play.
If you look at the names of the winning Super Bowl quarterbacks since that Dilfer Super Bowl, they go like this:
Brady, Brad Johnson, Brady, Brady, Roethlisberger, P. Manning, E. Manning, Roethlisberger, Brees, Rodgers, E. Manning, Flacco, Wilson, Brady, P. Manning.
That list of 15 Super Bowl winners does not have many "outliers." Most of those guys are anywhere from good to Hall of Fame. Even Brad Johnson, the biggest outlier in terms of star power, was 22/6 on his touchdown-to-INT ratio that season the Bucs took home the crown. Certainly, quarterback play matters. That said, the final iteration of Peyton Manning, the one that could barely throw the ball 20 yards last year without looking like he was heaving a boulder, gave hope to the QB-less teams, to where, as long as you have an elite defense, if you protect the football, you have a puncher's chance.
It is here where I'd love to say, "That's what should give Texans fans hope"; however, the Texans have managed to make bad luck and bad judgment at the QB position an annual tradition, and just when it appeared that they had someone who could run Bill O'Brien's offense at, minimally, a high school level (Tom Savage)...BLAMMO! He gets concussed, and we are back to Pop Oswarner.
The funny thing about this season's playoffs is that the QB vetting process isn't quite so formulaic. Yes, some of the usual names are at the party — Brady, Rodgers, Wilson, Big Ben. However, the No. 1 seed in the NFC has a fourth-round rookie starting at QB, albeit a very talented, precocious one. The No. 5 seed in the AFC also has a fourth-round rookie starting at QB, but he's making his first career start.
There are multiple teams starting backups. There are three starters named Matt, and one of them is backed up by another Matt. There are two teams whose third stringers have more playoff wins than the first and second stringers combined. In short, it's as skewed a group of playoff quarterbacks as one could expect in a sport where success is about as directly linked to one position as any you could name.
So given the precarious nature of the position this season — again, multiple backups are starting — let's rate each playoff team's QB "situation," meaning we are looking at not just how good their starter is but a) how equipped is their backup to succeed, and b) how likely are we to see the backup?
Here we go...
12. OAKLAND RAIDERS (12-4, AFC No. 5 seed)
STARTER: Connor Cook
BACKUP: Matt McGloin with one arm or, possibly, Garrett Gilbert
COMMENT: If you're a Texans fan who is rooting for the Texans to fail in the short-term so you can see long-term change (and I know you're out there!), this had to be one of the most frustrating two weeks of your rooting life. Not only did the Texans stumble into another AFC South title, but they drew the one team in the playoff opener whose QB situation is a bigger BLEEP show than theirs. The Raiders have gone from having the possible MVP of the league under center to a third-string rookie (who everyone hated coming out of college) being backed up by newly signed Garrett Gilbert. I mean, it's like the football gods were given a challenge to somehow make the Raiders quarterback room worse than the Texans' and they had to exhaust all resources to do so.
11. HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7, AFC No. 4 seed)
STARTER: Brock Osweiler
BACKUP: Concussed Tom Savage or Brandon Weeden
COMMENT: How bad are the Texans under center? Somehow the team with the best defense in the league is only a three-point favorite at home to a team quarterbacked by Connor Cook in his first career start. Say what you will about Scott Mitchell, Rob Johnson, Kevin Kolb...any of them...Brock Osweiler trumps them ALL in the "horrific, speculative, big contract QB" race.
10. MIAMI DOLPHINS (10-6, AFC No. 6 seed)
STARTER: Matt Moore
BACKUP: A limping Ryan Tannehill or T.J. YATES!
COMMENT: Seemingly not wanting to be left behind in the "let's try this with a backup!" derby, the Dolphins enter the playoffs with career journeyman Matt Moore as the starter. Ryan Tannehill remains on the roster, and if somehow Miami pulled off the upset in Pittsburgh, it'd be fascinating to see if they continue to ride Moore or try to get Tannehill ready to go. FUN FACT — Third stringer T.J. Yates has more career playoff wins — ONE! — than Moore and Tannehill combined.
9. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (12-4, AFC No. 2 seed)
STARTER: Alex Smith
BACKUP: Nick Foles
COMMENT: I know everybody is really high on the Chiefs, No. 2 seed in the AFC and all, but if they win big this postseason, I doubt the main reason will be their QB play. Let's not forget that we are just a couple of seasons removed from Alex Smith's not throwing a TD pass to a wide receiver for a WHOLE SEASON! That's positively Osweilerian! Smith makes a lot of his bones these days letting Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill do the heavy lifting with their legs. Smith can also make the occasional underrated, athletic scramble play. The Chiefs, like the Texans, are one of the worst red zone teams in all of football, ranked 30th. Of the nine starters in the playoffs who I would call "regular starters" (Osweiler had just been benched two weeks ago), Smith is the least scary.
8. NEW YORK GIANTS (11-5, NFC No. 5 seed)
STARTER: Eli Manning
BACKUP: Ryan Nassib
COMMENT: This was not one of Eli Manning's better regular seasons (16 INTs), but there are two things we know about Eli Manning — 1) He will be the guy taking every snap for this team. Dude is a durability cyborg...and 2) He can catch fire in the postseason with the best of them. In fact, with his two Super Bowls coming in 2007 and 2011, we are long overdue for an Eli Outlier postseason.
7. DETROIT LIONS (9-7, NFC No. 6 seed)
STARTER: Matt Stafford
BACKUP: Dan Orlovsky
COMMENT: Stafford had worked his way onto the MVP radar about two thirds of the way through the season on the strength of a slew of fourth-quarter comebacks and the growing sentiment that he was finally fulfilling the promise that came with drafting him first overall in 2009. Then he injured a finger on his throwing hand, and some of these close shaves the Lions were winning started to go the other way, and now he's just a 9-7 quarterback trying to pull an upset in Seattle this weekend. I have him ahead of Eli strictly because he's been MUCH better this season, but it's close. Very close.
6. ATLANTA FALCONS (11-5, NFC No. 2 seed)
STARTER: Matt Ryan
BACKUP: Matt Schaub
COMMENT: Like Stafford, Ryan is trying to fulfill the promise of his high draft slot nearly a decade ago (third overall in 2008), but he took his game completely next-level this season. Under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan had his best season as a pro, with 38 TDs and only 7 INTs with a nearly 70 percent completion percentage. Like Stafford, Ryan is trying to finally make some headway in the postseason. To put it in perspective, backup Matt Schaub has the same number of playoff wins (ONE!) as Ryan does. (Sidebar — Yates, Orlovsky, Schaub...the backups in these playoffs read like the guest list at a Kubiak family picnic!)
5. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-5, AFC No. 3 seed)
STARTER: Ben Roethlisberger
BACKUP: Landry Jones
COMMENT: If we are drawing dotted lines for tiers, now we get to the teams whose starters are the cream of the crop, and the mitigating factors in rating the situations for each team weigh heavily on durability of the starter and quality of the backup, along with (obviously) how well the starter is playing. Big Ben comes in at No. 5 just because his style (and now, his age) will always lead to injury concerns, and Landry Jones is a train wreck as a backup.
4. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10-5-1, NFC No. 3 seed)
STARTER: Russell Wilson
BACKUP: Trevone Boykin
COMMENT: Wilson is among the most trustworthy QBs this time of year, but behind that sieve of an offensive line, potential injury has to be a concern, especially considering Wilson's been dealing with leg injuries all season. This has been Wilson's most up-and-down year since his rookie season, as well. I'm just not entirely in love with Seattle and, in turn, Wilson, operating out of the No. 3 seed, with no rest and having to go through Atlanta and/or Dallas to get to the Super Bowl.
3. GREEN BAY PACKERS (10-6, NFC No. 4 seed)
STARTER: Aaron Rodgers
BACKUP: Brett Hundley
COMMENT: Rodgers is the hottest player in all of football right now, having promised a six-game winning streak, delivered it and thrown 18 touchdowns and no interceptions in the process. If we were merely ranking starting quarterbacks, he would be No. 1. However, if something were to happen to Rodgers (and he's had a calf injury on and off this year), the Packers turn into a 4-12 team with Brett Hundley as their starter. Sorry, Brett.
2. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2, AFC No. 1 seed)
STARTER: Tom Brady
BACKUP: Jimmy Garoppolo
COMMENT: Indeed, the last two teams on the list, the two top seeds, are here on the QB Situation rankings because their depth charts at quarterback are a fortifier, not a cause for concern. When Tom Brady missed the first four games of the season on suspension, the Patriots went 3-1 with Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under center.
1. DALLAS COWBOYS (13-3, NFC No. 1 seed)
STARTER: Dak Prescott
BACKUP: Tony Romo
COMMENT: The Cowboys are actually more highly regarded by oddsmakers with their backup, Romo, playing than they are with Prescott, their MVP candidate starter. Behind THAT offensive line, health is a minimal concern, and even if something did happen to Prescott, the Cowboys would be favored to get to Houston for Super Bowl 51. Hell, their third stringer, Mark Sanchez, has more career playoff wins (four) than Romo and Prescott combined (two)!
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